Godzilla (1998)

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong
★★
☆☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1988
Director: 
Roland Emmerich
Starring: 
Matthew Broderick, Maria Pitillo, Jean Reno, Hank Azaria
The Setup: 
American would-be franchise that shot itself in the foot on its first try.
Discussion: 

After watching the restored Gojira, the first Godzilla film, again recently, suddenly I was possessed to see this one again. Plus I now work in DUMBO, where I see the Brooklyn Bridge up close every day, and it reminded me of this film, whose climax takes place there. This film was to be the first in a series of American Godzilla movies and seemed to be brought to us by the perfect people, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, who had just brought stupefying mass destruction too the masses with Independence Day. Ah, what we can see with hindsight. This film knocked Emmerich right off the pedestal that held him as releasing pop epics with social resonance (remember, there were ARTICLES about people cheering upon seeing the White House blown up) and down to a status of releasing overblown but ultimately silly effects extravaganzas. The film still brought in a shitload of money, but was still perceived as a total failure, and plans for sequels were scrapped. Not to mention that the Japanese were fucking pissed. And the whole thing was considered best left forgotten.

I was ridiculously excited about the prospect of watching this again (Okay, not THAT ridiculously), gearing up to make a long and detailed list of every single thing wrong with it, then take my time writing a long review lampooning it from every angle. What I found, to my surprise, distant from the massive expectations one had for it at the time (I was there on opening night, back in the day), this is revealed as not that bad. Don't get me wrong--it's not that good, but one can see that it arises out of a desire to please and provide a fun movie that takes its story somewhat seriously. And just fails on the most macro level. But they tried, and let's give them that.

We open with credits that show Pacific islands, and iguanas. Then there are exploding nuclear bombs, and we see the iguanas watching the explosions. At one point we see an iguana swimming, which is there for one purpose that will become apparent later. We conclude with a snow of radioactive fallout landing on an iguana egg. Cut to a ship in the South Pacific seas who gets suddenly hit and sunk by something huge. This is a bit of a reference to the opening of the first Godzilla film. We then introduce Matthew Roderick as Nick at Chernobyl, where he is studying the effects of radiation on earthworms. He is picked up by a government helicopter who demands that he come with them immediately. We also meet Maria Pitillo (who?) as news woman Audrey, with her cameraman friend Victor, played by Hank Azaria. There's also Jean Reno as Phillippe nosing about mysteriously.

There are numerous small incidents as Godzilla makes his way from the South Pacific to the East Coast of America. WHY would he travel all that way? The movie later supplies an answer--one that makes absolutely no sense. The reason is, flat-out, that they wanted to set the movie in New York. So there you go, mystery solved. They find giant footprints walking across an island (perhaps another reference to the first film). They find a tanker destroyed-- a tanker loaded with cans of TUNA! That Godzilla apparently smelled through the steel can. Or maybe the ship catches raw tuna and cans it right on board before ever reaching land? And this giant lizard wants cans of tuna, the relative size of a pin head, when it is out swimming in the open ocean where it can just grab live tuna? Let's not think about it too much.

Back in New York, we have reason to judge this film as a New York film made by people who have only visited New York. You don't so much have characters as tired New York stereotypes, like that everyone is loud and giving a lot of guff, numerous people have strong Bronx accents, people are ruthlessly ambitious, etc. We'll have numerous reasons to return to how this movie gets New York all wrong, but before you know it, Godzilla is coming right up over the FDR and toward Wall Street. As he comes he sends numerous small boats crashing to the ground and--I'm sorry, WHAT fucking small boats could the filmmakers possibly be referring to? There are zero small boats on the East River (nor are there small wooden piers where an old man might fish). It's as if Emmerich wrote the script while in Germany with only a picture book of New York--copyright 1942--as his guide. Godzilla heads straight for the Fulton Fish Market (now defunct, but active then) and over to Wall Street, where Mayor Ebert is giving a speech. Yes, this film features Mayor Ebert, who is played by an actor who looks very much like Roger Ebert, and he has an assistant, Gene, who looks very much like Gene Siskel, and they're both constantly giving thumbs up or thumbs downs. Apparently this is Emmerich's way of getting back at the poor reviews he has received, and apparently he is just flat out too stupid to realize that putting in these characters is a really fucking dumb form of criticism--I'm sure Ebert had trouble showing his face after your FLOP came out, Emmerich, right? Not to mention that you are in fact MEMORIALIZING the fact that you got bad reviews by putting this in your film!

Recently, Emmerich has called further attention to his intellectual deficiencies by making this movie claiming that this dude--who is not even among the first FEW contenders who might have actually written Shakespeare--actually wrote all of Shakespeare's plays. The most amusing thing about this to me is that Emmerich appears in the little "pre-show" ads before movies saying "I really think that Shakespeare didn't write these plays," and it's like you know, if Harold Bloom had said that, I'd be skeptical! But since such a distinguished scholar as Roland Emmerich has claimed it, I've really got to pay attention.

Jesus, Emmerich, why don't you self-finance a three-hour documentary about yourself called I AM A STUPID PERSON?

Okay, I guess I'm not going to go quite as easy on this movie as I thought.

Anyway, Godzilla rampages, although at first the movie tries to keep us from getting a very good look at him. I remember a line from the New Yorker review from the time where the writer mentioned that his only interest in this film was in seeing what the monster looked like, and the person replied "What are you talking about? It looks like a GIANT FUCKING LIZARD." When we do finally see Godzilla, he looks like a big iguana (or like Pumpkinhead), and walks with a hunched-over gait, which is not entirely bad, although it's not exactly Godzilla. Our classic Godzilla walked upright and basically was so big he just dozed through everything, which was his charm. This one creeps around corners and climbs up buildings, which I can kind of respect, as it seems that the filmmakers were trying to reinvent Godzilla in a way that we could take a little more seriously. The thing is: no one wants to take Godzilla seriously, and if you wanted to, you should watch how he is handled in Gojira or even the darn fabulous Godzilla 2000.

Another example of the filmmaker's misguided thought process on this movie is that Godzilla no longer breathes fire, because that would be silly. Instead he just breathes out flammable breath (I guess?) and it blows an already existing fire toward our characters. You see, because it makes perfect sense that there would be a 50-foot tall lizard that swam all the way from the South Pacific to New York City, but the idea that said lizard would breathe fire? That's just SILLY.

Okay, so what else? It doesn't make sense to keep describing the plot, since that has barely aching to do with anything. Next on our list of things that don't ring true is the fact that Godzilla is supposedly after FISH. Which would seem to then make it more sensible for him to remain in the OCEAN, wouldn't you say? Not to mention that, if he's after relatively small fish, why does he have giant teeth and a huge mouth not made for eating such things? I think they should have just left this whole aspect out. Later we find that Godzilla is gathering fish for his (yes, his) young, which are about to be born. So what, he eats the fish, then pukes them out, penguin-style? Apparently. So this is the reason they came up for him to swim from the South Pacific to New York--he is looking for a place to nest. Right? I guess that makes sense? The movie is trying to postulate that this creature--which, in this film's mythology, has never existed before--somehow has some instinct to go to New York? Although none of its iguana ancestors have gone to New York? And gee, can you think of a worse place to nest? Let's not fail to mention that Broderick somehow knows that the creature reproduces asexually, handily explaining away the problem of how he came to be pregnant if there's only one. You see--narrative conundrums fade away... as if by MAGIC!

Hmmm, I'm not sure now whether to talk about the way they got Godzilla wrong, or the way they got New York wrong. The city is evacuated in the first few minutes to spare us the issue of people getting killed--Poof! Just like that... Manhattan evacuated! Which makes me reflect on one of the HUGE issues between this movie and Japanese Godzillas. In the Japanese films, people DIED. Godzilla caused mass destruction (here more of the destruction is caused by poor-shot helicopter pilots that miss and end up hitting major landmarks), and his appearance was generally a really bad thing. In the original, Gojira, there's a sequence in which we see a widow on the street telling her three kids that soon they'll see their daddy--and are invited to think they are soon killed. I don't think a single person dies here. Back to New York, this movie features a long helicopter chase around Midtown that shows the city as a big maze, with lots of streets that lead directly into buildings, not the grid layout that the city really is. This movie also shows our character retreating down an alley, and as any child knows, New York does not have any alleys above Canal street. Oh, and let's not skip the demonstration that at the Hudson River, Manhattan sits atop a sheer cliff wall that just goes a hundred feet straight down into the water. For Gods sake, you'd be mocked for just one or two of these, but THIS MANY? Did they even VISIT New York before making this film?

Now the are also "characters" in this movie, and one of the ways in which this does ape traditional Godzilla films is that they are just the filler between monster rampages. And somehow the groups of characters is Emmerich's films all end up being essentially the same. They're a sub-Spielbergian bunch that are a little wacky while also having a serious scientist and maybe a journalist or two. Here Broderick is the charming, nerdy-but-cute scientist, and the aforementioned Pitillo is his struggling journalist ex-girlfriend. It's a bit of a struggle to see why any of them found her charming or thought she'd be a good inexpensive actor to be in their effects-driven film (when Spielberg did it he got Laura Dern, right?), as she's an abrasive mixture of baby-talk and pure insipidity. Jean Reno and Hank Azaria do what they do, but their characters are conceived in such an obviously repackaged, focus group-tested way that it's hard to warm up to them.

There is a long sequence in which we are led to believe that Godzilla perished at the hundred-foot underwater sheer drop-off that Manhattan sits atop of, and our characters sneak back into the abandoned Manhattan to emerge in Madison Square Garden, where they find that Godzilla has laid hundreds of eggs, which now start hatching hungry baby Godzillas (Godzukis?). This film came out soon after Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World, which expanded on the velociraptor excitement of the first, and I can only imagine that this sequence is in some way a response to that, as well as a way for our heroes to have some direct peril from an enemy closer to their own size. Note that there was talk that the Tyrannosaur-in-San-Diego ending of The Lost World was a way to short-circuit anticipation of THIS film. Oh wait--people actually die in this sequence. So people DO die in this film, just not directly by Godzilla himself.

Okay, there's too much wrong to go into, and plus it's getting boring, so I'll wrap up after just one more complaint. Godzilla just doesn't have any personality here. Apparently this film is to be considered a great advance on the old guy-in-suit Godzilla movies, since we now have digital effects that can show us everything much more realistically, but let's keep in mind that when you're looking at a guy in a suit, you're looking at something that actually exists. Maybe the models the guy in the Godzilla suit are crude, but they are actual objects that are collapsing through actual space and have a real weight. I'm trying to think what all personality he had in the earlier films--he really just showed up, plowed through town, then went back into the water--but somehow that imbued him with a little more personality than he has here. Maybe they're trying to make him too cool here, or maybe it's that he HAS motivations in this one, or maybe it's that he just vanishes underground for long periods, but somehow he just seems a big blank. I distinctly recall sitting through Godzilla 2000 a few years later and seeing a car in the foreground while Godzilla slowly walks across Tokyo Bay in the background, and thinking "Okay, THIS is how it's done!" That image stayed with me ever since, whereas there wasn't a single image from this film that made any kind of lasting impression.

So there you go. A giant waste. A franchise squandered. An icon brought low. Etc. And from Emmerich's subsequent films, it seems that he learned absolutely nothing about what went wrong here. You can see that I started out trying to be kind, and forgiving, but ultimately the film itself prevents all of that. They deserve everything they get.

Should you watch it: 

If you want to, I can't prevent you. It won't kill you, and it might be interesting to compare and see what goes right with the Japanese Godzilla films.